The announcement of a ‘North of Tyne’ deal – covering Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland – marks the first devolution deal under Theresa May’s premiership. While its creation is pragmatic, in the longer term its coverage must be stretched to include Gateshead in particular.
This deal comes off the back of a failed devolution deal for the wider North East Combined Authority. The authority was formed in April 2014, and all seven local authorities went on to agree a devolution deal, with a mayor being set to be elected in 2017. But the deal broke down in September 2016 when the leaders of Sunderland, County Durham, South Tyneside and Gateshead had a change of heart, with the reason given in public being the Government’s failure to guarantee funding the area would lose from the EU as a result of Brexit.
Since then the three North of Tyne authorities have been working together to put their own deal together, which came to fruition this week. That they have gone it alone is commendable – those with devolution deals have much to gain. And it seems unfair that the willing should be hamstrung by the reluctant.
But while I’m by no means a purist, the geography of the new deal is far from ideal. The point of devolution is to pass powers over the economy down to the geography that people live and work their lives over, so that the housing that they need is available, that transport allows them to get from this home to work, and that there are enough jobs available at the end of this journey. But the current geography (through no fault of the North of Tyne authorities) does not match this geography.
The map below shows commuting in and out of the North of Tyne area. Gateshead has the highest share of residents crossing the Tyne, with more than one in three working there, while close to one in five South Tyneside residents go north for work. It also shows how the built-up area of Newcastle – its physical footprint – stretches into Gateshead and South Tyneside, which is reflected in the Centre for Cities definition of the city. This means that the devolution deal effectively splits it in two.
Click on map to enlarge.
In light of both this specific devolution deal and the preferencing that mayoral areas received in the Budget, the dissenting local authorities in the North East area (and Gateshead in particular) should reconsider their positions. Having a deal that does not reflect the area that people live and work their lives over (or the one the Metro transport system operates over) will likely blunt its effectiveness and hurt the people who the current elected politicians represent.
The purpose of devolution deals is to improve the job opportunities available to people in the areas where they live. Whilst we recognise that the politics surrounding devolution are not always straightforward, politicians should not lose sight of this fact in their negotiations. One of the first tasks for the mayor, when he or she is elected in 2019, will be to establish strong working relationships with neighbouring non-mayoral authorities, and then over time to create a situation where they are willing to join to better match policy with the geography of the economy.